Sermon: Get Behind Me!

A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison for Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, February 28th 2021

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Mark 8:31-38

‘Get behind me, Satan!’ (8:33) That’s what Jesus says to Peter, when Peter tries to tell Jesus what he should be doing, rather than the other way around. This was so a memorable phrase, coming from the lips of Jesus, that it became proverbial in our own culture, often used seriously, or semi-seriously, to tell someone that you found their suggested course of action really tempting, but wrong: ‘Get behind me, Satan,’ or just, ‘get behind me.’

I say ‘it became proverbial’ because I suspect it’s fading from use now as fewer and fewer people ever hear or know the biblical story in which it originates. And even if you do read or hear Mark 8:31-38 why concentrate upon, or even preach upon, ‘Get behind me, Satan,’ especially in a Bible passage that’s just packed with so many of Jesus’s proverbial one-liners: ‘if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me’ (8:34); those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life … will save it’ (8:35); ‘for what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?’; and, ‘those who are ashamed of me and my words … of them the Son of Man will be ashamed.’ (8:38) There’s the basis for another four sermons there!

But don’t worry, I’m going to stick with only one sermon today, and with ‘get behind me’ – though I would like to point out that Jesus says it not once but twice.

The first time Jesus says it is when he says it to Peter. Peter has been doing well, Just prior to this occasion, Jesus had been inquiring what people were saying about him, it was Peter who identified Jesus as the Messiah (8:29); one appointed by God to save God’s people. Maybe success went to Peter’s head; maybe pride comes before a fall, because Peter’s next intervention went spectacularly and proverbially wrong.

This is the first of three occasions reported in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus predicts his ‘passion’; his being handed over for suffering and death: ‘Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ (8:31) And Mark also tells us that Jesus, ‘said all of this quite openly.’ (8:32)

I wonder whether it was the content of the teaching, or the fact of Jesus saying it quite openly, that pushed Peter to speak out? ‘Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.’ (8:32) Just imagine yourself doing that, trying to tell Jesus off about his teaching! I suspect Peter’s problem was that although he had identified Jesus as God’s Messiah, his conception of ‘messiah’ emphatically did not include suffering, rejection, and death. What sort of way was that to go about saving God’s people? We might ask, ’What sort of way is that to go about saving God’s world?’

Peter felt very strongly about it, but so did Jesus: ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Faced with someone suggesting an alternative to rejection, suffering, and death, Jesus was tempted. What human being wouldn’t be in such circumstances? And we know of a previous occasion when Jesus was tempted. It came in the wilderness, in the wake of his baptism, and Mark’s Gospel mentions it: ‘He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan.’ (1:13)

‘Tempted by Satan.’ Calling someone ‘Satan’ is no compliment, but here, when Jesus calls Peter, ‘Satan’, it carries with it the particular sense of ‘tempter’. Peter is tempting Jesus to turn his back on saving others through his own rejection, his suffering, and his death. More than that, Jesus had been teaching them that he ‘must undergo great suffering’ (8:31), with that ‘must undergo’ implying that this was the will, the plan, and the action of God. So Peter was tempting Jesus to turn his back on God’s plan. No wonder Jesus says, ‘you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (8:33)

But just as Jesus in the wilderness had rejected temptation, so he now rejects the temptation presented to him by Peter. And Jesus demonstrates that with his second, ‘get behind me!’ Immediately after telling Peter off: ‘he called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ (8:34) ‘If any want to become my followers …’

You don’t follow someone by being ahead of them. You follow someone by being behind them. In fact, although this does not come across in our English translation of the original Greek of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus used the same wording in both places: ‘get behind me,’ Peter, for you’re in my way (and God’s way); and ‘get behind me,’ all of you, so you can all become my followers.

Hence Jesus’s words, ‘if any want to become my followers [if they get behind me], let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ Jesus overcomes temptation, remaining committed to bringing about salvation through non-violent, self-sacrifice, even in the face of opposition. And he calls on everyone else – you and I included – to take on that mindset and approach in our dealings with the world today. We’re not commanded to seek our own crucifixion Jesus’s death on the cross was enough), but we are called to follow along in Jesus’s footsteps; to take on the approach and attitudes of the one who did go to the cross on our behalf.

This is the second Sunday in Lent, the period when we focus upon the suffering and death of Jesus, and what that means for us and for the rest of the world. Today’s Gospel reading helps us to do just that. We remember that Jesus, though tempted to do otherwise, accepted suffering, rejection, and death for our sake and our salvation. And we also receive his call to get behind him, following his approach to life, saying, ‘Yes, Jesus, we’re behind you all the way’.

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